A violent crime. A vast conspiracy or a case of mistaken identity? When two of the most renowned minds in all of London are put on the case things are bound to get interesting, especially since they are on opposing sides. It would be one thing to be proven wrong by another brilliant mind, but another thing entirely if that someone happens just so happens to be your brother. Sibling rivalry is alive and well between the brothers Holmes: Sherlock & Mycroft.
How it Plays
Each player takes on the role of one of the Holmes brothers in order to prove the guilt or innocence of a young man accused of detonating a bomb at the House of Parliament. It’s a fine setup for a game, but is mostly an excuse for some pretty artwork. The goal of the game is to collect more valuable clue cards than your opponent. There are 8 types of clue cards. At the end of the game, the player with more clues of each type is awarded victory points equal to the amount indicated on the clue card minus the number of clues of that type the opponent has.
The game is divided into 7 rounds of alternating actions between players. On your turn, you put one of your three action markers onto a character card and take the associated action. You can never have more than one action marker on a single character. These actions vary from collecting investigation markers, to spending investigation markers, to taking clues from the display and even stealing clue cards from your opponent.
If both players have an action marker on the same character at the end of a round, the character becomes exhausted and cannot be used in the following round. A new character is revealed and a new round begins. Whoever collects the most points is the winner.
Holmes: Sherlock & Mycroft enters the crowded realm of 2 player card games. With so many stalwart titles such as Lost Cities, Battle Line, Jaipur and 7 Wonders: Duel it would take a special game to stand out. It’s a tall order that any game would have trouble living up to and while Holmes: Sherlock & Mycroft might not live up to those lofty heights, it still manages to be a pretty good game in its own right.
When it boils down to it, Holmes: S&M is a majorities games. You’re trying to collect a majority in as many valuable clue types as possible. It’s not a new concept, but Holmes has some fun with the idea. The subtraction of points for every card owned that is not a majority incentivizes players from taking cards even if they don’t believe they’ll take the majority. Every card taken in this manner is a point closer to victory. Furthermore, if a player manages to collect all of the cards of a single type, they’ll get 3 bonus points. This incentivizes players to keep collecting cards of types they have a majority of. Incentives everywhere! Essentially what happens is that you want every card since every card has some value. The difficulty arises when trying to determine which cards are more beneficial than others.
To further muddy the waters, certain characters allow you to collect cards face down which are not revealed until the end of the game. Even still, there are wild cards that can fill in for any type of clue. This bit of hidden information adds just the right amount of uncertainty to keep the game tense. It’s rare that anything is set in stone mid-game. Sure, you might have the lead in fingerprint clues now, but you never know what your opponent has face down or what might show up in the clue display later. Should you double down on your lead or focus your efforts elsewhere and hope that your lead holds up?
Furthermore, the number of points a particular clue type can grant is equal to the number of those cards present in the game. A majority in footprints can grant 8 points, but it also means that there are 8 footprint cards up for grabs. That makes it harder to gain the 3 point bonus for getting all the clues. Going after the big point cards isn’t a brain dead choice anymore. It’s completely viable to try and corner the market on low value clues with the intention of gaining that 3 point bonus. It’s all very well thought out and leads to some tense decision making.
As for the character actions, they fall into two broad categories: gaining investigation tokens and spending investigation tokens to gain cards. They all feel appropriately priced and the stronger cards don’t feel out of place since they are available to both players and they won’t dominate the game since they become exhausted when both players use it. Having investigation tokens on hand gives you flexibility to take cards when they become available, so making sure you have some on hand is vital to playing a strong game. Whenever you take cards from the display, new ones are revealed to take their place. This is always a tense moment as you can only hope that nothing too valuable is revealed for your opponent to take advantage of.
The characters come out in random order every game and there are more characters than rounds meaning you won’t see them all every game. There are even optional, more confrontational characters that you can use if you want. I wasn’t a big fan of them since I already felt there was a lot of back and forth in the game. I can’t hold it against the game since it’s entirely optional. The variability can, however, lead to some lackluster moments. Some characters are more powerful early in the game or late in the game. Toby, for example, gives you an investigation token for every type of clue you currently have. Early in the game, you might only have one or two different types while later in the game you might have four or five. That’s all fine and dandy, but when Toby is revealed early in the game, it’s a bit of a letdown since the state of the game hasn’t really changed much and there’s not much incentive to utilize the new character. The rhythm of the game is disrupted whenever this happens and it’s not just one card. There are various characters that vary in strength depending on the stage of the game. It’s not a fatal flaw, but it’s definitely noticeable.
Holmes: Sherlock & Mycroft does a lot of things right and offers simple, but meaningful decisions. It’s reminiscent of some of the titans in the genre. The variable actions aren’t as immediately approachable as something like Lost Cities, but after only a few games they’re easily remembered. It does however fall victim to some pacing issues as a result of the random reveal of these actions. And honestly, it’s not that bad of flaw. But in a field crowded with absolutely great games, all it takes is for a slight imperfection to be looked over. When it’s my turn to choose a two player game, I’m most likely to grab one of the tried and true. If, on the other hand, Holmes: S&M is brought to me I’d gladly sit down and enjoy a game.
Review copy provided by Devir.